If you're a fan of classic dungeon crawling role-playing games, there aren't too many options out there for you. Oh I don't mean on DS… I mean in general. Luckily, Atlus has us covered, not only delivering two versions of the "draw your own maps" first-person dungeon crawler Etrian Odyssey, but also the new – and true underdog – adventure The Dark Spire. "What is The Dark Spire?" you might ask. It's kind of like Wizardy. If you ask "What is Wizardry?" though, this one might not be for you. It's really, really traditional.
I had a chance to go hands-on with The Dark Spire a while back because, quite frankly, there isn't always time to cover every uber-niche game out there, and we were making cuts. Low and behold though, this one had sleeper hit written all over it, and a hands-on quickly followed. Even after crawling many a dungeon with The Dark Spire, I'm still reluctant to say it's truly better or worse than its other main contender on DS, Etrian Odyssey, but it certainly holds its own, and this one is going to come down to your own personal tastes in dungeon crawlers.
The Dark Spire is a purely traditional RPG, which needs a quick explanation. It's all first person, there's very little animation at all in the game, and the entire design hinges around creating your own four-person team, selecting their race and alignment (neutral, chaotic, or good), and rolling for stats. The actual stats themselves often work behind the scenes though, so when you buy new weaponry or armor you'll have to use trial and error to figure out what works best for each member of your team. Reviving dead members is a pain (and really expensive), you start out alarmingly weak with as little as four HP at level one, spells are required to even see your current position on a dungeon map, and nearly every treasure chest is rigged with deadly traps. This is a serious, strategic RPG, but it's also amazingly charming in its design. Trust me, you will use guides, message boards, and FAQs if you want to stand a serious chance and really get into what The Dark Spire is all about. It's simply that kind of game.
So why do some gamers (myself included) get behind something like The Dark Spire? The game is amazingly open-ended, has unlimited options and strategies, and is a truly freeform role-playing experience that not only looks and feels like a throwback game, but delivers the same challenge and strict "life or death" anxiety that comes from not knowing what the next step could lead to. The Dark Spire's visual design is simply beautiful, tossing away the traditional anime look for a more rustic, dark, retro look to it. Heavy lines, thick, dark colors, and over exaggerated character expressions flourish in this refreshingly pure package, and the soundtrack is just as varied and "throwback" in nature. The narrative that goes along with the experience feels like something out of Shadowgate, and really gives a classic sense of immersion that's often lost in current-day RPGs. As an added bonus within the game, developer Success included a mostly black and white wireframe mode as well, allowing you to change the game on the fly from its beautiful DS design to a purely classic "text and boxes" design. Even the music changes; it's pretty impressive.
With that being said, this isn't an "everybody" game; not by a long shot. Most players will die over and over again, the game does little to introduce you to the systems or tell you when you're doing something wrong, and the actual world itself is extremely small, offering one main tower to climb as your dungeon, one town, and a few shops. Anyone expecting a hand-holding, player-friendly offering is going to be very disappointed, but for that same reason the hardest of the hardcore out there will welcome this game with open arms. In fact, I'd say most "average" DS users might never realize there are multiple ways to attack in the game – with different strategies offering speeds and varying results for each turn – may never notice you have to manually select your level up stats and spells, wouldn't have a prayer in finding the extra classes in the game unlocked by combining "class points" to make hybrid skillsets, or ever take the time to pray and up their alignment allegiance or master skills like dancing, linguistics, or biology for added perks. After a 10 minute look at the game, you might think it's extremely simple and too shallow. After 10 hours, you'll realize just how amazingly off your first assessment truly was.
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